Who stands between the government and a proper, effective sanctions regime against Russia? Not Jeremy Corbyn, though he might wish he could. Putin is going to get away with the Salisbury attack, suffering little more than a token expulsion of diplomats, thanks to anti-fracking protesters. They didn’t mean it, of course. When they stood before the bulldozers in the Sussex village Balcombe, jumped up and down about mini-Earth tremors in Lancashire they thought they were doing the Earth a favour. They saw UK-produced shale gas as a dirty alternative to clean, carbon-free energy. But they were wrong. In the short to medium term at least the alternative to UK-produced shale gas was imported gas, an increasing proportion of which comes from Russia.
Anyone surveying the wind turbines and solar panels sprouting across the British countryside could be forgiven for thinking that we are rapidly building self-sufficiency in energy – and clean energy at that. But it isn’t true. By far the bigger story is the decline in North Sea oil and gas production, which has taken up back to a level of energy-dependence last seen in the mid 1970s. As recently as 1999, the UK was producing 20 per cent more energy than it consumed. But the last year we enjoyed energy self-dependence was in 2003. By 2015, a net 38 per cent of energy consumed here was imported.
As for gas, which accounts for just under 40 per cent of total energy consumed in Britain, 43 per cent currently comes from UK production, 44 per cent comes from European pipelines (of which a third is ultimately supplied by Russia). The remaining 13 per cent is imported in the form of liquified natural gas (LNG) – either from Qatar, the US or, since of this year, the Yamal LNG project in Russia’s Arctic. Putin’s sale of this gas to the UK, when Russia is still under EU sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, is something of a PR coup for him. It sends the message that however much we would like to retaliate against him economically, we are constrained by our dependence on Russian energy.
It could have been different had the UK’s shale gas industry been properly supported. Instead, it was put at the mercy of Lancashire councillors and the anti-fracking lobby was left to win public support largely unchallenged. The result is that the government’s tough words against Putin cannot be followed up by action which would genuinely hurt him. For the anti-fracking lobby it is a prime lesson in the law of unintended consequences.